‘My memory will be erased’: the bicentenary of Sade’s death

In his fiction, the Marquis de Sade conceived countless ways to die. The most shocking ones are notorious: After having escaped from the hands of numerous libertines, the virtuous Justine is struck by lightning. Other victims are just as unfortunate and end up being tortured to death by Juliette and her fellow libertines. In Les Cent-Vingt Journées de Sodome, the duc de Blangis even informs a host of beautiful creatures that they should already consider themselves ‘dead to the world’ before having been dispatched.


Engraving from Justine ou les malheurs de la vertu, 3rd edition: ‘En Hollande, 1800’.

Despite these somewhat intimidating aspects, Sade’s decent works provide less painful ways to be decomposed into particles of insensible matter. In Florville et Courval, a tale belonging to the Crimes de l’amour, the pious Mme de Lérince dies feeling pangs of conscience, while the Epicurean Mme de Verquin peacefully passes away on a voluptuous bed, scantily dressed and surrounded by fragrant flowers: ‘I will calmly fall asleep on the bosom of nature, without regret and pain, without remorse and anxiety’. On her deathbed, Mme de Verquin already imagines the flowers that will have been fed by the atoms of her ‘disorganized’ body. Sade’s literary universe, usually renowned as one of torture and pain, does not exclude peaceful death.

Unlike Mme de Verquin, who dies aged 25 and in the flower of her youth, Sade passed away aged 74 in the lunatic asylum of Charenton. As his biographers tell us, he wasn’t spared the ailments of old age and even suffered violent pain during the days preceding his death on 2 December 1814.


The lunatic asylum of Charenton in 1856. Engraving from Adolphe Joanne, Les Environs de Paris illustrés (Paris, 1856), p.575.

Far more interesting than the real circumstances of his decease is how Sade imagined it. In his testament, signed in 1806, Sade stipulates that his corpse should be buried on his property of Malmaison southwest of Paris. Furthermore, he specifies some particulars of the burial:

‘Once the grave has been covered up, one will sow acorns, and when the ground has become overgrown and the brushwood turns to be as thick as it used to be, the traces of my tomb may disappear from the surface of the earth, just as I like to think that my memory will be erased from the spirit of mankind.’

As the rich and often controversial reception of his work over the last two centuries shows, his last will has not been fulfilled. According to his testament, he wanted to fade from collective memory, but 200 years after his death he is a part of both popular and scholarly culture.

Yet we might not be betraying his last will when we study his texts today. The instructions to the undertaker have something deeply theatrical and seem keen on capturing attention rather than erasing memory. Unsurprisingly, the last sentence from the testament is one of the favourite quotes in Sade studies…

On 2 December 2014, numerous scholars will commemorate Sade’s life and work. A conference in Amsterdam, organized by Gert Hekma and Lode Lauwaert, will investigate Sade’s impact on contemporary ideas of sexuality. On the eve of the bicentenary day, Nicholas Cronk and I will present our recent edited volume Sade, l’inconnu? at Oxford. And many others might join us and lift their glasses in honour of de Sade: A la vôtre, Monsieur le Marquis!

– Manuel Mühlbacher

Sade: compulsion and insight

Les 120 journées de Sodome

Manuscript of Les 120 journées de Sodome

‘The fruit of solitude is originality, something daringly and disconcertingly beautiful, the poetic creation. But the fruit of solitude can also be the perverse, the disproportionate, the absurd and the forbidden.’ Thomas Mann’s linking in Death in Venice of beauty, excess and the taboo evokes much of what is characteristic about the ‘poetry’ born of Sade’s solitude. This poetry is most evident in Les 120 journées de Sodome, which Sade began on 22 October 1785 and finished thirty-seven days later whilst imprisoned in the Bastille.

It is not mere provocation to describe a catalogue of horrors as poetry. The relentless dismantling of bodies according to a demented logic creates an effect of abstraction; partly by dint of stylistic repetition, the violence enacted upon the victims makes of them little more than an assemblage of parts to be reconfigured at will.

The Marquis de Sade

Portrait of the Marquis de Sade, by van Loo, c.1760

Yet just as Roland Barthes was wrong to state that ‘écrite, la merde ne sent pas’ (shit does stink, page after page), so these bodies do not belong solely to the abstract; the victims do not stop screaming, and it is the reader’s continued connivance that is responsible. In sharing the author’s bleak and acutely personal delirium (think of those times Sade addresses and corrects himself in the text), the reader confronts ethical and aesthetic challenges that no other literary work offers.

A new possibility to penetrate Sade’s solitude will be available when the famed manuscript of Les 120 journées goes on show at the Musée des lettres et manuscrits from 26 September 2014. Will the sight of an artefact that owes its existence and singular form to harsh solitary confinement prompt new ethical responses? Will one’s reading of the text be altered by the material testimony of imprisonment? How might one’s sympathy for a writer change the way one confronts his fictional violence?


SVEC has published widely on Sade’s work, including Caroline Warman’s Sade: from materialism to pornography (2002:01), William Edmiston Sade: queer theorist (2013:03), and my own Sade’s theatre: pleasure, vision, masochism (2007:02). In this bicentennial of Sade’s death at the asylum at Charenton, the reassessment of his broad range of writing continues in many other ways.

For instance, Michel Delon and Stéphanie Genand have each recently published new editions of Sade’s short stories; Chiara Gambacorti’s new book explores his late historical novels; Nicholas Cronk and Manuel Mühlbacher have edited a volume of essays that offer new approaches to Sade; and Jean-Christophe Abramovici and Florence Lotterie are hosting a major international conference from 25 to 27 September 2014.

One of the characters in Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether states ‘I have been cursed with both compulsion and insight’; if Sade has often been seen as compulsive rather than insightful, the current fizz of scholarly and editorial activity may well modify that view.

Thomas Wynn, Reader in French at Durham University. His translation of Les 120 journées de Sodome, produced in collaboration with Will McMorran (Queen Mary, London), will appear with Penguin Classics in 2015.

Nouvelles perspectives sur les manuscrits des Lumières

Dans le cadre superbe de l’hôtel de Lauzun, l’Institut d’études avancées de Paris a accueilli le 26 mai 2014 une journée d’étude destinée à faire le point sur certaines des découvertes récentes dans la recherche sur les manuscrits du Siècle des Lumières. Depuis quelques années, l’actualité attire l’attention sur certains manuscrits mythiques, comme celui d’Histoire de ma vie de Casanova qui a rejoint les collections publiques de la Bibliothèque nationale de France en 2010 grâce à un mécène, ou bien tout récemment, le rouleau des 120 journées de Sodome de Sade enfin de retour à Paris, pour y être exposé à l’automne au Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits.


Le manuscrit des 120 journées de Sodome

Les salles de vente bruissent des papiers des écrivains du XVIIIe siècle: ceux d’Emilie du Châtelet sont passés il y a peu aux enchères ainsi que dernièrement ceux de Portalis, l’un des auteurs du Code civil, dont la Cour de Cassation a réussi à acquérir le dossier génétique complet d’une de ses œuvres, la Consultation sur la validité des mariages protestants de France, qui comprend une copie au net annotée de la main de Voltaire.

Tandis que les manuscrits sortent des coffres et s’exposent derrière des vitrines ou sur des écrans numériques, de leur côté les chercheurs se lancent dans leur patiente analyse. Ce fut le but de cette journée, organisée par Nicholas Cronk, Nathalie Ferrand et Andrew Jainchill en collaboration avec l’équipe Ecritures du XVIIIe siècle de l’Institut des Textes et Manuscrits Modernes, de montrer tout l’intérêt, pour la compréhension et l’interprétation des œuvres, de l’étude de leurs états préparatoires et remaniés.

La page de titre des Considérations sur le gouvernement du marquis d’Argenson (1764)

La page de titre des Considérations sur le gouvernement du marquis d’Argenson (1764)

Ouvrant la matinée avec une intervention consacrée au marquis d’Argenson, Andrew Jainchill (Queen’s University, IEA) a présenté quatre états manuscrits de ses Considérations sur le gouvernement ancien et présent de la France, l’une des critiques les plus vives de la monarchie française au XVIIIe siècle – citée plusieurs fois dans le Contrat Social – dont il put interpréter l’évolution en fonction des additions de l’auteur dans ses différentes versions.

Après la théorie politique, c’est la philosophie naturelle de Mme du Châtelet qui fut l’objet d’une étude menée par Karen Detlefsen (U. of Pennsylvania) et Andrew Janiak (Duke U.), à partir d’une comparaison des manuscrits de ses Institutions de physique conservés à Paris et à Saint-Pétersbourg. Dans l’après-midi, Nicholas Cronk (U. of Oxford, IEA) a présenté les dernières découvertes dans le domaine voltairien, et a montré à quel point la recherche des manuscrits est féconde – y compris pour des auteurs canoniques comme Voltaire dont on croit tout savoir –, puisqu’on continue de découvrir de nouveaux manuscrits qui renouvellent les connaissances établies.

Au plus près du papier et des instruments d’écriture des auteurs, Claire Bustarret (CNRS-EHESS) a ensuite présenté les apports de la codicologie pour déterminer les campagnes d’écriture au sein de corpus manuscrits imposants, comme dans le cas des papiers de Condorcet. La journée s’est achevée par une intervention de Nathalie Ferrand (CNRS-ENS) sur l’importance croissante accordée aux manuscrits d’auteurs au sein des études dix-huitiémistes et sur le rôle qu’ont pu jouer les manuscrits des Lumières dans l’émergence progressive de la critique génétique au cours du XXe siècle, concluant par l’interprétation génétique d’une page de La Nouvelle Héloïse que Rousseau récrit en puisant au lyrisme du Tasse.

– Nathalie Ferrand, Ecole normale supérieure-CNRS

Caption: Page de corrections de La Nouvelle Héloïse de la main de J.-J. Rousseau

Caption: Page de corrections de La Nouvelle Héloïse de la main de J.-J. Rousseau

Eighteenth-century violence… redux

Representing violence in France, 1760-1820

Representing violence in France, 1760-1820 (Voltaire Foundation)

Talleyrand may have claimed that anyone born after 1789 would never know the ‘douceur de vivre’, but his peachy vision of the eighteenth century has long gone. Violence lurks everywhere in the period – how could it not in an age of vast inequalities?

The century ends, of course, with the bloodletting of Robespierre and Sade’s writing, but even from the first couple of decades the French recognised the thrill and lure of violence. Crébillon père aimed to renew tragedy through an emphasis on visceral savagery, and displayed a particular liking for the theme of infanticide. His son the novelist must have been bemused. In the book I have recently edited, Representing violence in France 1760-1820, contributors delve deep into a range of literary, historical and political sources to analyse the insidious and terrifying nature of violence.

Execution of Louis XVI (artist unknown; public domain image)

Execution of Louis XVI (artist unknown; public domain image)

Violence does not need to be this dazzling – indeed, it is at its most disturbing in its sudden irruption in a moment of calm. Look how Arlequin lunges out of the darkness towards Colombine in Watteau’s Voulez-vous triompher des belles?  No wonder she rapidly covers her bosom when faced not just by that strange mask and that delicate but insistent hand, but by a man who is sliced in two at the middle, as if his desire has sundered him.

Recent fiction has shown little interest for the refined delights of the eighteenth century. Instead, bones and corpses are exhumed, with the resultant miasma seemingly provoking violence and madness in Andrew Miller’s Pure (2011). And all manner of animal and human flesh is eaten in Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet (2013), which concludes just before the narrator knows what it feels like to be cat food…

–Thomas Wynn